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Jan Hers (1915-2010).

We regret to announce that Jan Hers, President of ASSA during 1967-8, passed away on 24 August 2010 in Sedgefield.

Jan was born on 4 March 1915 in Hilversum, Netherlands, where his father was a medical doctor. After an acrimonious divorce, in January 1928 his mother, grandmother and the three children of the family decided to move to Potchefstroom where they had relations and where Jan attended the Potchefstroom Gimnasium Hoerskool. In spite of having to learn Afrikaans and English, not only did he become top of his class but he was elected Dux of the school in 1932.

An interest in constructing radios led to a decision to study light-current electrical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand. His family moved to Johannesburg in 1933 to facilitate this. He graduated in 1936.

His first job was with the South African Broadcasting Corporation. He worked in part as a recording engineer but was later given the task of developing equipment to measure the stability of the Corporation's transmitters. In checking the precision of the instrument he had developed he found that he was able to provide more accurate time than the Union Observatory, which then supplied standard time signals to South Africa.


In the course of this work, Jan built up a good relationship with the Observatory, who coveted his expertise. In 1947 he resigned from the SABC andjoined them at a reduced salary. Van den Bos is said to have opposed his appointment as he was not an astronomer but Finsen's support carried the day. He developed a number of precision clocks in the course of his work, including one based on an 'Essen Ring' crystal that was stable to 2 parts in [10.sup.9]. The radio time service station ZUO was put into operation in 1949. In 1966 a caesium clock was installed as the primary standard. Hers was appointed Acting Director of the Observatory (since 1961 known as the Republic Observatory) in 1965, following the retirement of its last astronomical director, WS Finsen.

During the late 1960s several efforts were under way, sponsored by the Royal Observatory at the Cape, the Republic Observatory and the European Southern Observatory, to find a new observatory site away from the lights of the big cities and having good atmospheric conditions generally. The final choice of Sutherland was bitterly resented by the Republic Observatory staff, particularly Hers and Finsen, who favoured a site near Graaff-Reinet and felt that the decision had been a political one.

On 1 January 1972 the Republic Observatory and the Royal Observatory were amalgamated to form the South African Astronomical Observatory under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), with support for a limited period from the Science Research Council of the United Kingdom. Jan's role thereafter was basically to supervise the closure of the Republic Observatory site. Most of the staff resigned rather than be moved to Cape Town. Jan elected to move to the National Physical Research Laboratory at the CSIR in Pretoria.

In 1967-8 Jan had been President of ASSA. In retirement, he lived in Sedgefield and became very active as an amateur astronomer. He was an enthusiastic variable star observer and was the director of the Variable Star section of ASSA for many years following 1977. In 1997 he was awarded honorary membership of ASSA. In 1998 he became the first chairman of the then newly formed Garden Route Centre.

He contributed 14 582 observations (14 578 visual and 4 PEP observations) to the AAVSO International Database during the period 24 January 1977-11 Apr 2004. The first observation he submitted was of L2 Pup, the last of CU Vel. In 1995 Jan was awarded an AAVSO Observer Award for contributing over 10 000 visual observations through 1994. This was announced at the AAVSO 84th Spring meeting in Stamford, Connecticut, on 14 May 1995. He was a member of the AAVSO from 1977 for 33 years.

He published several articles in MNASSA on timekeeping and grazing occultations. He also wrote three articles on the history of the Transvaal/Union/Republic Observatory.

He was a member of the SA Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE) for 75 years.

Jan had three children, Peter, Enid (Mullin) and Joan (Musto). He is survived by them and his second wife, Rita. His first wife Phyllida, the mother of his children, passed away in 1985.

[Thanks are due to Chris de Coning, Brian Fraser, Peter Hers, Greg Roberts, Case Rijsdijk and Cliff Turk for help with compiling this obituary. Some information has also been taken from the book Living amongst the Stars by Dirk J Vermeulen, Chris van Rensburg Publications, Johannesburg, 2006]
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Author:Glass, Ian
Publication:Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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